I was watching a 9/11 memorial program yesterday, and found I couldn’t stand to see the images. It just makes me angry and awakens emotions I’d rather leave alone. Ten years ago today the trajectory of my life changed forever, as did the lives of just about every single person I know. I’m sure it’s the same for anyone reading this post. I remember that day very well. I was on alert status and doing some ordinary prep for training. I remember walking through the squadron bay and seeing a couple guys staring at the TV. They said a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. I had little time to waste, and went about my day. The next time I came through the bay, a crowd of thirty had gathered, and I found out that incredibly another plane had hit the second tower of the World Trade Center. I watched as long as I could, finally pulling myself away to finish preparations for training downrange.
A short time later, my radio squawked. I was told to get back to the squadron immediately—that a third plane had hit the pentagon—and training was over. At the time, I didn’t understand the double entendre of those words, but I would soon.
I spent close to a decade in one war zone or another on multiple deployments, missing anniversaries, birthdays, Christmas, school plays and everything else my family was doing. I’ve lost friends and had other friends horribly wounded. Through it all, I have never forgotten why we were fighting.
“Never forget” is often stenciled on anything related to 9/11, and I completely agree, but to me, it’s a double-edged sword. We should remember not only the sacrifice of the innocent civilians who lost their lives that day, but also what factors brought the abomination to American shores, both in the enemy that attacked us and the complacency that allowed the attack to occur. In my mind, one man’s journey encapsulates both.
FBI special agent, John P. O’Neill, was tasked with bringing the perpetrators of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing to justice. Eventually, he captured the mastermind of the attack, Ramsi Yousef, in Pakistan, bringing him to trial in the United States. Throughout that case, he began to believe there was a growing strategic threat. Nobody wanted to listen. He investigated the Khobar Towers bombing (June 25, 1996), and the attacks on our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania (August 7, 1998), and became convinced that a group nobody had heard of, known as al Qaeda, was to blame.
The government was treating the attacks as random acts of terrorism—disparate actions with no connection to each other. Nobody listened to special agent O’Neill. He became a zealot, and while respected for his knowledge, was never taken seriously. After the USS Cole was attacked in Yemen in 2000, he became shrill, begging anyone to take the threat seriously. Put in charge of the investigation, he traveled to Yemen, intent on breaking the al Qaeda cell that conducted the attack. He was rebuffed by the state department and eventually recalled because of his “insensitivity” to the relations with the Yemeni government. Nobody believed a sub-state organization had the ability to conduct such synchronized attacks.
Convinced al Qaeda had both the will and the capability to attack the U.S. homeland – convinced that not only did they want to do so, but were actively planning the event – he did his best to get the giant U.S. bureaucracy on board, but failed. Sick of beating his head against the wall, he decided to retire from the FBI. At the end of August, 2001, he took a cush job as the head of security for two large skyscrapers in New York City, known collectively as the World Trade Center. Shortly after he began his new job, on September 11, 2001, he was killed evacuating civilians from Tower II.
His journey had come full circle. Ramsi Yousef, the architect of the first WTC attack whom he had tracked down and captured, has an uncle. His name is Khalid Sheik Mohammed, and he is the architect of 9/11.
The term “never forget” means more to me than the memory of the sacrifice of that day. It means remembering the complacency that allowed the attack to occur, and the hubris of our own strength and security.
Make no mistake; the threat is still out there. Ten years later, there are plenty of people who scoff at the thought of terrorists attacking the United States again. Who like nothing more than to castigate any attempt at protecting American lives, but most have little to no understanding of the tragedy that is 9/11. Charles Baudelaire said, “The greatest trick the devil ever played was convincing the world that he did not exist.” And that’s exactly what those blind people try to press on the rest of us, complaining of costs both real and imagined in dollars and civil liberties.
The civil liberties of a Pakistani green-card holder who shouts allahu ahkbar in a radical mosque would not be the top agenda had they been clinging on the outside of the North Tower, the flames licking out, the metal getting hotter and hotter until it begins to blister their hands. Looking left and right desperately searching for some means of rescue, some miracle. Finally looking down from the dizzying height—and letting go.
The idealists, like the bureaucracy before 9/11, want to believe Islamic fanaticism is dead with Osama bin Laden, but wanting it doesn’t make it so.
In my heart, I believe that if you could talk to any of the nearly 3,000 innocent people who died that day, their fervent wish would be “Don’t let this happen again.” I know that’s what John P. O’Neill would say.
Memorializing the lives of those in the WTC, the Pentagon, and on Flight 93 is important, and something that should occur every single day, but coupled with those thoughts should be the determination to prevent such tragedies in the future.
In my mind, the slogan should be “Never Forget. Never Again.”